Monthly Archives: September 2014

Effective Collaboration on Law School Outlines

Image courtesy of Ambro/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Ambro/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Over the past few days, we’ve explored a lot of important information about law school outlines. First, I explained what a law school outline actually is and answered some of the most frequently asked questions about outlining. Then I addressed the key things to consider as you are creating an outline. Most recently, we talked about different forms that an outline might take, depending on your learning preferences and what feels most comfortable to you. Today, I want to discuss how law students can effectively collaborate on their outlines.

Law students often ask me if they can work with others in creating an outline. After all, time is at a premium in law school. It often feels like there are not enough hours in a day. After you get done reading and briefing cases for all of your classes each week and completing your assignments for Legal Writing, what time is really left for outlining?

Often, when students are thinking about collaborating on outlines, what they are really thinking about is dividing up the outlining duties. In other words, each member of the study group will complete one section of the outline and disseminate it to the other members. If there are four members of the study group, each person only has to create one quarter of the outline. Students especially are tempted to take this approach when they wait until the last few weeks of the semester to start outlining. I want to caution you about using this strategy—it may seem to make your life easier in the short term, but in the long term it will hurt you. As I’ve explained before, outlining is synthesis—it is learning. It is personal, and there are no shortcuts. You should not divide up the outline among members of your study group, with each person only creating one small part of it. The result of that approach will be that no one will know the material very well, except for the part that that person actually created. (A better way to cope with the time constraints is to outline each section of your outline as soon as you have finished learning about it in class. It can also help to tweak your approach to time management—revisit your study schedule to determine how best to incorporate outlining into your day.)

I don’t want you to think that you should never work with other students on your outline though. Collaboration can be effective if you approach it in the right way. For example, your study group could agree that each person will complete the same section of his or her outline by a particular date. Then, once those outlines are completed, the study group could meet to talk through the outline, with members asking questions about things that they didn’t understand. With this approach, each member of the group will leave the meeting with a better understanding of the material because of the discussion. A study group can help students to feel accountable for completing their studies, keeping them on schedule when there are other distractions.

Image courtesy of stockphoto/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of stockphoto/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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Types of Law School Outlines

In the past two posts, we have explored what law school outlines are and what kinds of information they should include. It is also important for you to consider the type of outline you want to create—in other words, its format. Not everyone approaches outlining in the same way—it is not one-size-fits-all. Instead, many students consider their learning preferences in deciding how to format their outlines. Regardless of which format you choose, I want to stress that the content is the same—all of the things that I described in yesterday’s post should be included in every person’s outline.

So what types of law school outlines are there? Here are several options that you may consider, although this is not an exclusive list:

The Traditional Law School Outline: When we use the word “outline,” people commonly think of the traditional, formal documents that are organized by Roman numerals. For example, in Torts, your first Roman numeral might be “Intentional Torts.” Letter “A” might set out the general requirements for Intentional Torts, while letter “B” might set out specific examples of intentional torts to persons, such as assault, battery, etc. Each of those examples would be identified by number, and lower-case letters would further break down the sub-issues within each type of intentional tort. The result is a tightly organized, formal outline. Reading and writing learners often choose to create traditional outlines. Once this type of outline is completed, aural learners may use text-to-audio programs to convert the traditional outline to audio files.

Although many law students do create traditional outlines, there are actually many other forms that also work for synthesizing course material.

The Modified Traditional Outline: Some students like the organization created by the traditional outline but do not like to the Roman numeral system. Those students may use other formatting tools, such as bolding, underlining, tabs, and bullet points to organize their course information. Explore some of the formatting options in Microsoft Word and other programs—you may find a particular formatting tool that works especially well for your outlines. Keep in mind that white space can also be a good tool—too much print concentrated on the page makes the outline hard to study from later.

Like the traditional outline, reading and writing learners often choose to use the modified outline approach. Visual learners may also find this approach helpful. As with the traditional law school outline, aural learners may use text-to-audio programs to convert this type of outline to audio files.

Tables: Some law students use the table function in Microsoft Word or other programs to create organized, visually-differentiated sections. Each section becomes a separate table, and you can even insert tables within tables to further organize information. Because the text is still very much the focus of the table approach to outlining, reading and writing learners may find it useful. Visual learners may also find tables helpful.

Image courtesy of Pakorn/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Pakorn/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Flow Charts and Diagrams: Still other students create flow charts or diagrams to organize course information, especially if they are visual learners or kinesthetic learners. Translating course materials into flow charts or diagrams, whether in whole or in part, can help you to visualize the process that you will use in applying the law to facts. Kinesthetic learners can use these tools to simulate the type of analysis they will use on exams. If the course information is too complex, you may need to utilize flow charts or diagrams in combination with one of the other outlining techniques I’ve described in this post.

Mind Maps: Occasionally, students find Mind Maps useful, and they may use mind mapping software to create webs of legal information, presented in something different than the traditional linear form. There are a variety of different mind mapping programs out there, either free or available for a small fee. Like flow charts and diagrams, it is important not to oversimplify your studies with this type of tool though. If you decide to mind map, choose a program which allows you to incorporate more detailed information into the mind map.

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Flashcards: You may also create a flashcard system, either as your main form of outlining or as a supplement to another outlining form (for example, you might create flashcards for important definitions or legal tests to make it easier to memorize those concepts). Some students color code their flashcards to signal connections between different cards. Others use flashcards of different sizes to signal that the card addresses an issue versus a sub-issue. If you plan to make flashcards your main form of outlining, it is important to develop a system for recognizing the connections between concepts on different cards.

Experiment with different ways of organizing your outline—you may be surprised about what works best for you. Additionally, what works for one class may not work as well for another. Periodically reevaluate your approach to outlining to make sure you are maximizing your outlines’ potential.

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7 Steps to Building Strong Law School Outlines

Image courtesy of pakorn/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of pakorn/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Yesterday I talked about what an outline actually is and addressed some of the general questions law students frequently ask about outlining. Today, I want to explore the outlining process—in other words, how you can get started in creating your own outlines. It can be hard to take the first step in outlining because first-year law students don’t always know where to start. Today, I’m going to walk you through that process.

1. Make Conscious Choices About Organization.

One of the keys to a good outline is organization. Organize your outline around legal concepts, not cases. This can be difficult to do at first. In order to be prepared for class, you focus on cases. That is why your class preparation includes the creation of case briefs. Once you start thinking about preparing for exams, though, you need to flip your preparation upside down—start with legal concepts, and use cases as examples of the concepts.

The order of those legal concepts also matters. Students often use the course syllabus or the casebook’s table of contents to guide them in organizing their outlines. Those sources can be a good starting point, but it is also good to think about how you would use the information on an exam. Don’t feel constrained by the order presented in the syllabus or casebook if a different order makes more sense. For example, the first thing that students often study in Contracts is damages. After you finish studying damages in the first several weeks of your Contracts class, you should go ahead and create that section of your outline. But, if you think about the life of a contract, damages really fits at the end of the process. Later, you will learn about the legal requirements for contract creation and rules regarding contract breaches. As you continue adding material to your outline, you might choose to place the section for contract creation at the beginning of your outline even though you studied it after you studied damages. You then might place the section on contract breaches in between those two other sections. Organizing your Contracts outline in this way will help you to anticipate the order in which you will use that material on an exam.

2. Compile a Thorough List of Issues and Sub-Issues.

For each section of your outline, you will need to identify the legal issues and sub-issues that should be included for that section. You can begin to compile a list of issues and sub-issues for a section by going through that part of the course syllabus and related table of contents material from the casebook. After you have compiled a list from these sources, begin going through your case briefs, class notes, and other course materials, adding to your list of issues. What you are looking for are key words, phrases, and rules.

As you begin to identify key legal issues, group similar concepts or ideas (in other words, the sub-issues) together under each of the issues. Ultimately, your outline will be divided into sections based upon general legal concepts, and within each of those sections you will include more specific concepts.

3. Use Legal Terms of Art But Otherwise Put Your Outline in Your Own Words.

Many of the issues and sub-issues you will identify contain legal terms of art. You should make sure that you include those legal terms of art in your outline, as well as their definitions. Be careful to not just copy information word for word from course materials though. You should attempt to put as much of your outline into your own words as possible. The process of rewording this information will make it yours—you will understand and remember it better. It will also help you to identify legal concepts that you still don’t understand. If you can’t put it into your own words, maybe you need to go back and review that material once again before moving forward, or you may need to go see your professor to ask more questions about that topic.

4. Include All Relevant Information in Your Outline.

Although there are some variations in content depending on the course you are outlining, strong outlines usually contain some common components. First, your outline will contain the legal rules and tests that you have learned through your reading assignments, class lecture and discussion, and other course materials. If a legal test has four elements, you will develop all of the elements of the test as part of the outline. You will also note the basis for each rule, such as the common law, the Restatement, a statute, Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, the Uniform Commercial Code, etc. Make sure that you outline includes definitions for all key terms.

You also want to include any exceptions to the rules. Where there are different rules that may apply to a particular legal issue, depending on the jurisdiction or facts in the case, make sure you set out what those alternative rules are. For example, maybe there is a majority rule which applies in most courts, but a few states take a different approach (in other words, there is a minority rule). Or maybe there are differences between the common law approach to an issue and the approach taken in the Restatement.

In some subjects, there may be defenses that apply in certain situations. One example that illustrates this approach happens in Torts. Maybe the plaintiff claims that the defendant has committed the intentional tort of battery because the defendant grabbed the plaintiff by the arm. The defendant might assert that he acted in self-defense, based upon the fact that the defendant grabbed the plaintiff’s arm as the plaintiff was about to stab him with a knife. It is important to note any defenses that correspond with the legal issues you are outlining, and fully develop those defenses as you would develop other sub-issues.

Furthermore, in some courses policy arguments may also be important. In classes where the courts or your professor has focused on policy arguments as part of the analysis, you should also integrate policy arguments into the relevant places in that course outline.

There are also some other things that you may need to include in your outline, such as context information. For example, when you study personal jurisdiction in Civil Procedure, you read Pennoyer v. Neff. Although not everything is this case is still good law, it may provide helpful context for your understanding of the current state of personal jurisdiction law. Context information, such as the history behind a legal concept, may help you to better organize what you have read regarding that subject.

5. Include Cases and Hypotheticals as Examples of Issues, Not the Focus of the Outline.

You may have noticed that so far I haven’t really talked much about cases. As I mentioned before, your outline should focus on the legal concepts you have been studying rather than on the cases. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t include cases at all though—instead, you should use them as examples of the legal principles you are outlining. The same holds true of hypotheticals introduced by your professor during class. You may choose to include hypothetical examples from class to remind yourself of how a particular legal rule may be applied to a specific set of facts.

6. Make Note of the Connections Between Legal Issues.

It is important to make note of your observations about how each legal issue relates to other legal issues in your outline. For example, let’s say you are outlining your Torts class. For your section on negligence, you might note that defenses and other legal concepts such as contributory/comparative negligence, joint and several liability, vicarious liability, etc. may also apply, depending on the fact pattern.

7. Include Your Professor’s Specific Comments in Your Outline.

Finally, you should make note of any specific comments that your professor has made about a legal issue, or anything that he or she stressed in class about that issue. Sometimes students do this by adding a “PROF” label to it, putting the note in bold, or otherwise signaling that what is being included came from the professor.

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What is a Law School Outline?

One of the most important tools for studying for exams in law school is the outline. Because of the importance of outlining, this week my blog posts will focus specifically on that topic.

What is an outline? An outline is an attempt to reduce all the materials from a course (syllabus, class notes, case briefs, notes from outside reading, statutes, hypotheticals, and other problems) into an organized study aid. In other words, it is a synthesis of your law school course materials. Outlining is the bridge between your daily preparation for class and your exams. If you do it properly, your outline will be your primary—possibly even your only—study aid for exams.

Here are some answers to frequently asked questions about outlining:

Why should I outline?

The answer to this question is really important. Outlining is synthesis—this is the point in the course when you start putting together the pieces of the puzzle. As you create the outline, you learn the material in the process. There is no shortcut for this learning process. If you rely on a commercial outline or one created by another student, you will lack the level of understanding required for success on your law school exams. By synthesizing various course materials, you gain a deeper understanding of legal issues and discover important connections between legal concepts. You will also identify legal issues that you don’t entirely understand—topics that you need to spend more time on, go back and read about again, or set up an appointment to meet with your professor to go over.

When should I outline?

Students also ask when they should start outlining. The answer: it depends on the class. You really can’t start outlining material until you have completed a topic. Look for those times when you have completed one entire topic in class and the professor has moved on to a new topic. Your syllabus or the casebook table of contents can help you to identify when one topic is ending and another beginning, so you can know when to start outlining.

Although you generally don’t want to start outlining a topic until you have finished learning about it in class, it is important not to wait too long to start outlining. Sometimes students will wait to begin their outlines until just a few weeks until the end of the semester. Waiting to outline until the end of the semester not only makes your studies more stressful, but you won’t be able to maximize the value of an outline. There is just not enough time at that point to develop the kind of outlines that allow you to fully understand the material.

How much time should I spend outlining?

If you outline topics as you finish them in class, you should be able to set aside an hour or two each week for each of your classes for outlining. At first, it may seem difficult to add additional time into your schedule, as you already are spending a lot of time reading and case briefing each week. However, as you establish a study routine that includes outlining, you will notice that outlining helps you to review course material and may actually help make the rest of your study time more efficient.

How long should my outline be?

The first draft of each outline is usually the longest, as it incorporates all of the course materials. However, outlines are a work in progress—you will continue to add to it and edit it over the course of the semester, and in the process you will condense it as well.

Although your early drafts may be fairly lengthy, an outline that is too long may signal that you are focusing too much on the details of the cases that you have read, rather than on the legal issues raised in those cases. As you review your draft outlines, you should continue to edit and reduce each outline to its essential components.

What should I do with this outline?

The outline is not an end product—it is about the journey, not the destination. Make your outline a living document. Revisit it regularly and fine-tune it to reflect your growing understanding of the legal issues you are studying and their relationship to each other. As you go through this process, you will gain even more understanding of the law, and you will increase your ability to recall information on the exam.

Check back tomorrow as I explain the steps for creating a strong law school outline.

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Using Technology to Make Study Groups Mobile

Yesterday, we explored some of the benefits of study groups in law school, as well as some techniques to make your study group more effective. One of the challenges that study groups face is the difficulty of getting everyone in one place at the same time. This is especially true if members of the study group have a job, live further away from the law school, have to arrange for child care, or otherwise find it hard to come back to the law school outside of class times. When your study group has these kinds of challenges, you can find solutions by thinking outside the box—try harnessing technology to make your study group mobile and more effective. Here are three types of technology that may aid your study group:

(1) Video chat platforms: There are any number of free video chat platforms out there, such as Skype, Google Hangouts, and FaceTime, and many of them allow you to have several people participating in the same conversation. With a video chat, it doesn’t matter where the members of the study group are located—all each person needs is a good internet connection and a smart phone, tablet, or computer.

(2) Collaborative study platforms: There are also quite a number of free or low-cost collaborative study platforms that could be easily utilized by law school study groups. Some of these programs have some really good components. A non-exclusive list of platforms to explore includes mind42 (a collaborative mind mapping platform), Simple Surface (allows real-time collaboration and includes a digital whiteboard; can download what you’ve created to pdf), ThinkBinder (a free platform for study groups that includes text discussion, video chat, shared folders, whiteboard, etc.), and Scribblar (another collaborative platform with text chat, live audio, whiteboard, etc.).

(3) Study Apps: A number of study apps allow multiple people to collaborate in creating study tools and share what has been created. I’ve previously talked about some of the apps available for creating flash cards. There are also some programs that let you develop games that you could use to review material, such as FlipQuiz.

The key is to think more broadly about how you can use technology to maximize your study group’s efforts. Not only may these tools increase the opportunities for your group to work together, but they can capitalize on group members’ preferred learning styles and make studying more productive and enjoyable.

*Nothing in this blog post is meant to be an advertisement or endorsement of any of the referenced products.

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Should Law Students Join Study Groups?

Image courtesy of Ambro/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Ambro/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

First-year law students always ask me if they should join a study group, and the answer that I always give them is “It depends.” What works best for one student may not work as well for another. For example, your preferred learning style may influence your decision to join a study group. Students who are aural learners or kinesthetic learners may find study groups particularly beneficial if the study group talks through legal issues or acts them out, while a study group that creates diagrams or outlines on a whiteboard may be more appealing to visual learners or reading and writing learners. How members of a study group approach their group studies may also affect how productive it is.

Here are some tips for making a study group a successful part of your learning strategy in law school:

(1) Accountability: The best study groups create a system of accountability for participants. Have members of the group create a set of ground rules at the first meeting. For example, what happens if someone is not prepared for the meeting? How will the group handle disagreements? Each member of the group will know what is expected, and there will be a predetermined way to handle any disagreements.

(2) Make a Plan: Also related to accountability, it is important for the study group to have a plan. If the group does not set goals for what it wants to accomplish and has no plan for each meeting, group meetings are likely to be less productive—in fact, a group meeting without a plan is often a complete waste of time. There’s nothing more frustrating than showing up for a group study session and having it turn into a social occasion instead, especially if time is at a premium (as it so often is in law school!).

(3) Optimum Size: Not every study group will be the same size, but it is important not to let a group get too large. A study group is not a workshop or seminar, but an opportunity for every member to actively participate and contribute. Some study groups only have two members; others may have as many as four or five. Much more than that and it will be difficult for everyone to benefit from the group. You will start having private conversations taking place on the periphery of the group, detracting from the study group’s larger purpose.

(4) Diversity of Membership: Law students often are drawn to people like themselves, but it is good to have diversity in a study group. What do I mean by diversity? Consider studying with people who are different than you—when people come at their studies from different perspectives and experiences, it benefits everyone involved. Invite people of different races, ethnicities, religious backgrounds, or sexes to join the group. If you are from a rural area, study with someone from a city. Invite a law student with a disability to join your group. It can be good to have group members of different ages, with different work experiences. Even recruiting students with different learning styles can be good—sometimes it helps to change up the way that you study periodically. If you study with a diverse group of students, their perspectives may help you to have a better understanding of legal issues than you would have had on your own.

(5) No Shortcuts!: Finally, a cautionary word about study groups. Students sometimes view study groups as a shortcut. They may try to divide up the work among members of the group in an attempt to reduce their individual study loads. For example, a group might decide that its members will take turns creating case briefs for class reading assignments or will each create part of an outline for one of their courses. This approach is a recipe for disaster. If you take this approach, you will not understand the course material at the level that you need to know it for success in class discussion, the final exam, or the bar exam. Resist any temptation to turn your study group into a shortcut, as you will regret it in the end.

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Making the Best Use of Study Aids

Study aids come in a variety of forms, such as treatises, hornbooks, commercial outlines, and study guides. Sometimes your professors will assign study aids as either required or suggested reading for a course. Often, the professor has selected this additional material because it supplements the reading from the casebook in some way. Many law students also purchase study aids on their own, without a professor’s recommendation, or they may check them out of the law school library.

So what is the value of a study aid? If used properly, study aids can enhance your understanding of what you are studying. The key is to do your assigned reading first, and then, after you have created your case brief, refer to any supplemental materials to clarify things that you didn’t understand. Or, if you are in the process of synthesizing course materials and creating an outline, you might use a study aid as a way of checking your understanding of the law. Some study aids contain practice multiple choice and essay questions that can be used as you are studying for your exams.

Where problems arise is when law students attempt to rely upon study aids as their primary way of learning new material. Keep in mind that you need to know what your professor expects you to know. Exams are based upon assigned course materials, and the study aids will have information that is presented differently or has not even been covered in your course. Learning is a process in law school—you gain more and more understanding of the law by going through various layers of studying and learning—reading cases, creating case briefs, taking notes in class, reviewing and updating your case briefs and notes, and synthesizing course materials by outlining or some equivalent process. If you skip multiple steps in the learning process, you will not know the law at the level that you need to know it for your law school exams or the bar exam. As with other areas of the law school experience, attempts to take shortcuts will backfire.

Another problem that law students have is that they are overwhelmed by the number of study aids out there and don’t know which one(s) to choose for each class. Costs add up and, for many law students, purchasing very many study aids is just not an option. Not all study aids will be equally valuable—they vary in format, and what works for one class may not work for another. Before buying any study aids, talk to your law professors and see what they recommend for your classes. If your law school library has study aids, look through them first to see what you find most helpful. Academic Support offices also often have study aids that you can look through or borrow.

The bottom line is that study aids can complement your other study efforts, but they can’t be a substitute for doing the hard work.

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Asking Good Questions in Law School

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

One skill that law students should develop is the ability to ask good questions. I’m talking about “big” questions here, not questions about small details of the cases that you’ve read. There are going to be many times in law school where you don’t understand something that you read or that was addressed in class. As a law student, you want to develop the ability to ask good questions.

Asking good questions is a way to give your professors the tools that they need to help you understand the law better. Let me give you an example of what I mean. Most law students start their Civil Procedure course by learning about personal jurisdiction. In the first few several weeks of the course, you will read multiple cases about personal jurisdiction, and your professor will use numerous hypotheticals to expand your understanding of that legal issue. It doesn’t help you or your professor if you raise your hand in class, or go to his office during office hours, and say, “I don’t understand personal jurisdiction. Can you explain it again?” It would take a really long time for your professor to reteach several weeks of material to you a second time, and it is probably just a part of the issue that you don’t understand, not the entire subject.

Your questions (and your professor’s answers) will be more helpful if you do some preliminary work first. Here are two important tips for developing good questions:

(1) If you don’t understand a particular legal issue that you are studying, trying to reason your way through it first. Reread your case brief and class notes, and even go back to the cases and read the relevant parts.

(2) Take the time to figure out what you do know, and then ask yourself, “What do I actually not know?” Maybe a particular legal test has four elements. You determine that you actually do understand elements 1, 3, and 4, and it is just element 2 that is giving you problems. By narrowing down what you don’t understand about the issue, you will be able to craft good questions.

If you take the time to do a little advance work and tailor narrow questions, you will give your professor the tools he or she needs to be able to help you.

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5 Tips for Maximizing Your Casebook Reading in Law School

Sometimes students get so focused on the case that they’re reading that they miss other information that could help them to understand the case and put it in context. With that in mind, here are 5 tips for maximizing your casebook reading in law school:

(1) Pay attention to the table of contents and chapter and section headings. If you look at where the case falls in the table of contents and use chapter and section headings as a guide, you’ll know more about the legal issue in the case, even before you start reading it.

(2) Read the introduction. Sometimes casebooks have introductions at the beginning of chapters or just prior to the case that provide more context for the case.

(3) Pay close attention to the notes that follow the case to gain more context for what you are reading. Professors often assign the notes at the end of the case as well. Don’t be tempted to treat these notes as less important than the case—the notes often offer additional insight into the case that you just read.

(4) Work through questions and hypotheticals before class. The notes after the case may also contain questions and hypotheticals—working through those questions and hypotheticals before you go into class may help you answer your professor’s questions if you’re called on in class. If you are an introvert or find the prospect of being called out in class stressful, you can use these note questions and hypotheticals to practice how you will approach your professor’s questions during class. Sometime just the process of practicing something in advance can help you feel more comfortable about how to handle being called on in class. If you are a kinesthetic learner, you may find the questions and hypotheticals particularly helpful as you study.

(5) Look for new cases in the notes that develop a more nuanced approach to the law that you’re studying. If you find new cases mentioned in the notes, think carefully about what those cases add to your understanding of the law. Ask yourself: How does this case relate to the case that came before it? Does it take a similar approach to the law? Does it further develop some element of the law that was introduced in the previous case? Or, does it illustrate a different approach to that law? Does it demonstrate the effect of different facts on how the law is applied? These types of questions not only help you to understand that particular note case but may also shed additional light on the larger case that you’ve just read.

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Choosing the Right Study Environment

Law students spend a lot of time studying. And by “a lot,” I mean a good portion of each day. Regardless of whether you are a first-year student, in your final year of study, or somewhere in between, the quantity and quality of your study time is directly related to your academic success. I have previously explained how creating a good study schedule is important in law school. Today, I want to talk about location—in other words, your study environment. Choosing the right study location for you can be a key element of maximizing the time that you spend studying. You can have the best intentions, but the wrong environment can derail your entire study plan. (As I’ve noted before, the right study environment is also important for those people studying for the bar exam!)

Here are some tips for choosing the right study environment:

Avoid distractions: What things distract you when you are studying? If you are constantly tempted to turn on the TV, then studying in your living room may not be for you. Do you visit with friends rather than get work done when you study at the law school library? You may need to study somewhere other than at the law school. Some students prefer the background noise of a coffee shop, while others find themselves listening to nearby conversations. Be realistic in your assessment of what distracts you—choose a study environment that avoids those distractions.

Consider study breaks: What do you like to do when you take breaks from studying? If you want to be able to take a short walk, then setting up your study station at the local coffee shop may not make sense—you won’t want to have to pack up your stuff every time you take a break. On the other hand, if your idea of a break is checking your email or playing computer games, then a more public location may not be an issue. Just make sure that your study location is conducive to taking study breaks.

Consider your space requirements: Some students prefer to study at a large desk or table, where they can spread out their class materials. Others prefer to sit on a comfortable couch, overstuffed chair, or even the floor. Think about what type of space makes you feel most comfortable when you are studying—you’re going to spend a lot of time there.

Assess, and reassess: Do you prefer routine, or do you need to change things up periodically? For some students, maintaining the same routine every day—studying at the same place at the same time—works best. Other students prefer a little variety in their study environment. You may also find that what works for you at one point in the semester may not be as effective as you get closer to final exams. Periodically reassess your study environment and make sure it still works best for you.

The perfect study environment is a personal thing—experiment and find out what works best for you!

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